Even after the end of his political career, Oskar Lafontaine’s words carry weight. He also has a lot to say about his life on his big birthday. And what he is grateful for.
He no longer holds a political office, but Oskar Lafontaine is still very close to politics. “I always remain political. There’s no other way,” says the politician, who is undoubtedly one of the best-known left-wing figures in Germany.
He managed the transition well after more than 50 years of active politics into private life, which he concluded in March 2022 when he became parliamentary group leader of the Left Party in the Saarland state parliament. “It went completely without any problems,” he says from his home in Merzig, Saarland, having just returned from a vacation in Brittany.
Lafontaine sees a gap in the German party system
Lafontaine continues to have a lot of political concerns. Above all, he currently sees no party that adequately looks after the interests of “the little people,” as he puts it, i.e. pensioners and low-income workers.
Neither the SPD, which he left in 2005, nor the Left Party, which he co-founded – and which he spectacularly left in 2022, does this. What is needed is a “strong party that represents the interests of the majority of the people,” says the non-party Saarlander. He will be 80 years old on September 16th.
“There is a real gap in the German party system.” By founding the Left Party in 2007, he tried to “change the policies of the SPD and, in the long term, bring both parties back together in the spirit of Brandt’s social democracy. Unfortunately, this attempt failed.”
Willy Brandt was “his political foster father”. “He was the most important politician for me in the past decades,” says Lafontaine.
He did not comment on speculation about the founding of a new party by his wife Sahra Wagenknecht, a member of the Bundestag for the Left. “Of course I support a party that advocates for social justice and peace. Unfortunately, this party does not exist at the moment.” But he is “not looking for a new role in politics,” emphasizes the qualified physicist.
Looking at people with low incomes and working for peace – these are Lafontaine’s central concerns. “Helping little people is something we learn from childhood. I don’t think you can learn that,” says the Saarlander. He grew up on a street in Dillingen where the ironworkers lived.
“My mother was a warrior widow.” The father was killed in action in April 1945, shortly before the end of the war. He still remembers how older women would sit at the table with his mother and cry because the pension wasn’t enough. And that his mother rationed the sausage slices for him and his twin brother Hans at dinner.
Little money and the pain of war deaths – these were “everyday experiences of my childhood”. “That’s perhaps why I oppose war more than others,” he says, also referring to the Russian war of aggression in Ukraine.
“Oskar”, as he is called in Saarland, was almost everything you could become in a political life in Germany: Lord Mayor of Saarbrücken, SPD state chairman, Prime Minister of Saarland (1985-1998), SPD candidate for chancellor (1990), SPD – Federal Chairman, Federal Minister of Finance, co-founder of the Left Party and its party and parliamentary group leader in the Bundestag. Most recently he led the left-wing faction in the Saar state parliament.
What would he do differently today? The first names that come to mind are Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt: “I would change one thing or another today in relation to these two people.”
Regarding the differences with Brandt in German policy, especially about the monetary union: “In retrospect, I always said to myself that I should have talked to him more often.” And in the dispute with Helmut Schmidt about retrofitting and nuclear energy, he would “proceed differently today: I would also seek more conversation with him.”
1990 assassination attempt
The assassination attempt in April 1990 was a turning point in his life: he was critically injured in a knife attack at an election campaign event in Cologne. “That changed the attitude to life,” he says today. “As a young person, you often live through the day and don’t think about the end. But an event like this makes you think about the end.”
When he looks back, he says, “a feeling of gratitude predominates.” “I had the chance to make a difference in my life, so I can say that I have improved the living conditions of many people.”
“The rescue of the steel industry” in Saarland in the 1990s was certainly important. “This affected thousands of families.” He is also grateful that, unlike in his childhood, he does not have any material problems. “That’s an incredible gift. I see it as a grace.”
Mushrooms and bike rides
And: “I am healthy and happy.” He stays fit by cycling. He and his wife regularly go on a 110-kilometer tour along the Saar and Moselle on their e-bikes. “We are also mushroom pickers,” he says. Soon it will start again for him. “I’ve been collecting for decades. Porcini mushrooms, umbrella mushrooms, morels. Really in baskets. It’s all here.” Of course, preparing the mushrooms is part of it.
Lafontaine says he will celebrate his 80th with friends. What other plans does he have? “I would like to travel around a lot more.” I would like to go to China again to see how the country has changed. Or to South America. “There are a number of countries that I haven’t visited yet.” He pauses for a moment: “But as you get older, you don’t like traveling too far away anymore.”